Political Science

The orcas will wait all day for a fisher to accumulate a catch of halibut, and then deftly rob them blind. They will relentlessly stalk individual fishing boats, sometimes forcing them back into port.

Most chilling of all, this is new: After decades of relatively peaceful coexistence with cod and halibut fishers off the coast of Alaska, the region’s orcas appear to be turning on them in greater numbers.

“We’ve been chased out of the Bering Sea,” said Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine.

Like many boats, the Augustine has tried electronic noisemakers to ward off the animals, but the orcas simply got used to them.

“It became a dinner bell,” said Clampitt.

John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described orca pods near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as being like a “motorcycle gang.”

“You’d see two of them show up, and that’s the end of the trip. Pretty soon all 40 of them would be around you,” he said.

A report this week in the Alaska Dispatch News outlined instances of aggressive orcas harassing boats relentlessly — even refusing to leave after a desperate skipper cut the engine and drifted silently for 18 hours.

These are not Coasean orcas, or are they?  And sperm whales are now in on the act:

Fishing lines are also being pillaged by sperm whales, the large square-headed whale best known as the white whale in Moby Dick.

“Since 1997, reports of depredation have increased dramatically,” noted a report by the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project.

A remarkable 2006 video by the Avoidance Project captured one of the 50,000 kg whales delicately shaking fish loose from a line. After a particularly heavy assault by sperm whales, fishers are known to pull up lines in which up to 90 per cent of the catch has disappeared or been mangled.

Here is the full story, with video, and further points of interest.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Mark Thorson.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the argument:

More generally, the U.S. is an environment where new products — and here I mean of the non-political sort — get started relatively easily. People are willing to take more chances with their consumption, and so this is a fertile environment for startups, which then spread to the broader world.

As for Britain, the traditional aristocracy is remarkably weakened, voting along class lines has disappeared and, most observers agree, if it were really up to the House of Lords, Brexit wouldn’t be happening.

On top of these factors is English, by far the world’s leading language for scientific and philosophic and political discourse, for blogs, for Twitter, and for many other kinds of dialogue. We shouldn’t be surprised if new ideas are more likely to surface and take hold in the English-speaking world.

Here is another bit:

To be sure, some evidence suggests the influence of President Trump is actually causing Western Europe to become more liberal. But don’t confuse style and substance. Another five to 10 years of deindustrialization, terrorist attacks and migrant crises might lead to a “home brew” version of Trumpian ideas in continental Europe, albeit cloaked in a more intellectual and more aristocratic garb. There is a running joke going around along the lines of “If fascist ideas come to [Country X], they will come in the form of anti-fascism.” Once the properly European version of the product comes to the fore, it might do very well indeed.

There is much more at the link.

It was a forty-minute chat (podcast, no transcript), most of all about the decline of liberalism, based around Ed’s new and very well-received book The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  We also covered what a future liberalism will look like, to what extent current populism is an Anglo-American phenomenon, Modi’s India, whether Kubrick, Hitchcock, and John Lennon are overrated or underrated, and what it is like to be a speechwriter for Larry Summers, among other topics.  Here is the opening bit:

COWEN: Having a taste for the esoteric, I’d like to start with a question. If we go back to the 1680s and James II takes the throne, then, William of Orange comes over from what we now call the Netherlands and pushes him out — was that a liberal development or an illiberal development?

LUCE: At the time, it was very much a liberal development. Of course, we then get the bill of rights. We then get a further restriction of the power of the monarchy that comes with this new Dutch co-monarchy, William and Mary.

In retrospect, given the fact that this is very much the Protestant fundamentalist, the Battle of the Boyne, the victory of the Orange forces, William of Orange. In retrospect, I think it’s being celebrated in a pretty illiberal manner.

Of course, that’s very germane right now in Britain, given that Theresa May is trying to form a government in which the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party are going to make up the difference between being a minority government and majority government.

It depends which bit of history you’re looking at it from is my answer.

And then I toss him this question:

COWEN: Let’s say we take the British election that was just held. So many people are calling it a mess, chaos, no-good results but, say, I offered you a revisionist view, how would you respond?

I would say it’s the first real election where voting by class has essentially fallen away. You even have Kensington in London going Labour for the first time since 1974.

Voting is now much more by age. You’ve more female representatives than ever before. You’ve 15 Muslims elected, 7 of those being female. More LGBT individuals. Maybe the new liberalism is reflected by that kind of elevation.

Then on top of that, the election definitely thwarted Scottish independence. It probably helped a soft border for Ireland. We hope it’s helping a soft Brexit.

No Corbyn, no UKIP. Wasn’t it exactly the vote we needed and the most liberal outcome you could have imagined, at least relative to all the initial constraints? Or not?

Ed is extremely interesting and articulate throughout.

Again, you can subscribe to the whole series here, we will be doing more bonus offerings of this nature.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is just one excerpt:

I see Trump as not a ruler but rather akin to the various fools, jesters or, in the case of Lear, the character of Edgar, who appears before the king in disguise and warns him of his enemies. Don’t interpret the word “fool” too literally here. The most common features of these characters is that they speak between the cracks in the action and utter sentiments that no one else dares  to voice. That’s Trump on Twitter. Would the word “covfefe” be so out of place in one of those poetic rants?


And looking forward, what might a study of Shakespeare tell us to watch for in the evolution of the Trump administration? How’s this for a start?:

  • Blood may be thicker than water, but nonetheless power struggles can break family bonds rather easily.
  • Power cannot be given away and still retained.
  • Don’t overweight legitimacy and birth order in determining succession.
  • Love is a wild card.
  • There is no maximum limit to chaos.

Do read the whole thing.

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.


LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.


LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.


That is the title of a new and interesting short essay by Arthur Waldron, here is one interesting bit of many:

Since the attack on Scarborough Shoal, now six years ago, my own opinion is that China expected to have occupied a lot more. Her slightly delusional view of her claims, first made explicit in ASEAN’s winter meeting of 2010 in Hanoi, was that “small” countries would all bow respectfully to China’s new pre-eminence. This has failed to occur. All of China’s neighbors are now building up strong military capabilities. Japanese and South Korean nuclear weapons are even a possibility. Over-relying on their traditional concept of awesomeness (威 wēi), the Chinese expected a cake walk. They have got instead an arms race with neighbors including Japan and other American allies and India too. With so much firepower now in place the danger of accident, pilot error, faulty command and control, etc. must be considered. But I’d wager that the Chinese would smother an unintended conflict. They are, after all, not idiots.


China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: in China one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.


That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Typically, if you put a major military base in a country, there is a general expectation you will not actively work to subvert the sovereignty of the host government. But right now the U.S. is violating that understanding.

Now imagine you are the leadership of Singapore, which faces political pressure from a much larger China and Indonesia. Singapore also hosts a significant American military base. You will think twice about the benefits you once expected from this arrangement. Kuwait and Bahrain, too, will be reconsidering their options. Other vulnerable countries with American military bases include South Korea, Kosovo, Greece and Djibouti. Yet other nations, such as Taiwan, do not host American military forces, but rely in part on the potential for American military assistance.

In sum, many more countries will feel less secure, and many of these countries will most likely court additional favor with their local or regional hegemons, which are typically less liberal influences than the U.S. In the Middle East and Gulf, for instance, Turkey and Iran stand to gain in influence.

Do read the whole thing.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

When we make personal decisions, we usually compare a choice to the best possible alternative, not the worst. Imagine if you suggested to your spouse that you go out to the movies, and your spouse asked why that might be a good idea. It wouldn’t be much of an answer to say that the movie is better than the very worst show on television at home. Rather you should focus on comparing the movie to the next best thing you might do, like watching your favorite TV show or going to a new restaurant you want to try.

The upshot is that we should compare anti-poverty programs to other anti-poverty programs, and favor only the prioritized ones. But just how much of a priority does a program need to be?

One way to proceed is to ask: If we expand some programs, what is the most likely political response? It could be either lower spending in some other program or, in fact, raising taxes on the wealthy. But the evidence on the “fiscal gap” — the space between what the government owes and what it collects — suggests that the opportunity cost of expanding one transfer program is likely some government spending elsewhere, rather than expensive handbags for the wealthy.

Do read the whole thing.


1832, in imitation of U.S. black speech; extended form of Lord as an interjection.

Source here.

What does a speaker mean if he/she exclaims “Lawdy me!”? I noticed this exclamation when I was reading a short story “the Conscience of the Court” by Zora Neale Hurston. There was one brown-skinned woman who was charged with felonious and aggravated assault and he exclaimed “Lawdy me!” during the court session by musing it inside herself. I haven’t found much information on my own search and I know only that Lawd and Lawdy are the non-standard spellings of Lord and Lordy and they have been used in black speech. These two words “Lawdy” and “me” attached together doesn’t make any actual sense for me, but I have my own guessings what they could mean: 1)”Lord help me!”, 2)more polite and more invisible way to exclaim “Oh my God” without referring to direct begging of the God, 3)”My dear God, forgive me my sins!” or 4) “Lawdy me!” is only an interjection used to express surprise, shock or the strength of feeling in a case that the person is completely non-religious.

Source here.  Here is more on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”  And here is a story on Comey’s work as a student journalist.

This note sets out situations where there has been no overall control in the House of Commons during the twentieth century. It considers precedents and conventions governing how the monarch might decide which party should form a government in such a situation, and when a request for a dissolution might be granted. It includes references to the Cabinet Office draft chapter of the Cabinet Manual and the evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 24 February 2010. The note also considers how a minority government or coalition might affect the work of Parliament. It looks briefly at the formation of coalition governments in Scotland and Wales. Lastly, it lists some sources of further information on situations of no overall control.

That is the best piece I know on hung Parliaments, prepared by Lucinda Maer for members of Parliament, from the Parliament and Constitution Centre.

I consider that question in my latest Bloomberg column, and actually contrary to conventional wisdom the rationality of extreme presidential tweeting cannot be ruled out.  Here is just one bit in a longer argument:

On top of all that, now imagine that you consider nationalism, resurrecting America as it once was, negotiating from strength, returning to older notions of masculinity and “building a wall” as the major issues of the day. You don’t see the traditional Republican concerns with cutting taxes and repealing Obamacare as all that salient for reversing America’s deterioration, even if you are willing to go along with those reforms. Nor, given your nationalism and unilateralism, do you see alienating allies as a major cost of opining so openly.

In that rather pessimistic view of the world, it might make sense to give up entirely on the idea that your administration will accomplish much in the way of policy, at least as the concept is traditionally understood. Instead, you might be thinking of shifting the window of policy debate over a 10- to 20-year period. That is, you might be hoping the American public will be thinking in more Trumpian terms a few administrations from now, even if outwardly they have rejected your legacy. It then will be the case that mainstream politicians will work to implement some Trumpian ideas through more traditional channels.

Do read the whole thing.

This 24-minute podcast was recorded in April, a time when I believe both of us were underestimating the chances of Labour.  In any case it was a fun chat, here is the podcast (no transcript), and here is one excerpt:

Tyler: Is Scotland going to leave? Yes or no?

Steve: I would like to say yes but I think no.

Tyler: You want them to go.

Steve: Oh, I definitely do.

Tyler: Tell us why.

Steve: My attitude and the attitude of the majority of English is that it would be pretty good to get rid of the bloody Scots. If there was a referendum on Scottish independence purely in England there would be a clear majority in favor.

More generally: “They talk about how the general election could shape the terms of Brexit, how much further the EU and even the UK will splinter, the prospects for the European left-wing, and the populism underneath it all.”

I am a big fan of Steve Davies.  He is a historian, formerly at Manchester, extremely well-read, and now Education Director at Institute of Economic Affairs.  He is also great fun to hang out with.

I am considering hypotheses here, to see how game theory might apply, so don’t think of this is an actual description of the situation.

As an economist, what struck me was the quick and extreme cut-off of Qatar by the Saudis and six other supporting parties.  In the simplest versions of principal-agent theory, we think of most incentives as being applied continuously and varied in small doses: was Qatar’s behavior the day before the Qatar embargo/boycott really so different than the day of and after?  So why did it happen this way?  I can think of a few possibilities:

1. The boycott is like suddenly firing misbehaving workers.  For morale reasons, you don’t want to keep them around on lesser terms, because they will be destructive.  This hypothesis implies that the cut-off of Qatar is a permanent one.

2. Demonstrations of power require large, discrete events.  If the Saudis had simply tweaked the incentives facing Qatar, the Qatar citizenry might not have distinguished the effects of that tweak from random noise.  This hypothesis suggests that once the Saudis have made their point, and received Qatari concessions, the cut-off will be lifted or at least modified.

Note that along this game path, Qatar may not wish to “fold” immediately, as that could make them an ongoing puppet of the Saudis, all too easily manipulated.  And indeed Qatar still has significant open markets for its natural gas.

3. Donald Trump’s meeting with the Saudis gave them an unexpected green light, either explicitly or implicitly, and thus the sudden receipt of this new information motivated their sudden switch in behavior.

#3 still may be consistent with either #1 or #2.

4. The Saudis actually are playing a game with Iran, not so much with Qatar.  What appears to be a big, sudden snap to the Qataris is actually just a smallish, mid-sized tweak in the incentives being applied to Iran.  Qatar, because it is so small, feels a high degree of collateral damage.

5. The punishment space is multi-dimensional.  Once “duration of punishment” is viewed as a variable, even a big punishment applied for a short period of time can be viewed as a marginal tweak.  In this sense there is no paradox.

6. The Saudis view the Qataris as the ones who made a “discrete break” from the previous equilibrium, by paying a $1 billion ransom to Iranian and al Qaeda-linked forces, to induce the release of some kidnapped royal family members.  Discrete breaks are inefficient, but perhaps you have to respond to one discrete break with another, precisely because they are inefficient.

7. Ian Bremmer mentioned on Twitter that 90% of the Qatari food supply is imported, 40% of it from Saudi, and now that is at risk.  There are some countries for which a partial degree of agricultural subsidies and protectionism may make sense, for national security reasons.  In any case, the degree of allowed smuggling reintroduces the notion of a smoother punishment space.

In a rational actor model (ha), this cut-off would be lifted in about a week from now.

One of his main points is that secular nationalism and Islamism have never been so separate in Turkey:

Tactical and transient, the new regime’s [Kemal’s] use of Islam, when no longer required, was easily reversed. But at a deeper level, a much tighter knot tied it to the very religion it proceeded on the surface to mortify. For even when at apparent fever pitch, Turkish secularism has never been truly secular. This is in part because, as often noted, Kemalism did not so much separate religion from the state as subordinate it to the state, creating ‘directorates’ that took over the ownership of all mosques, appointment of imams, administration of pious foundations – in effect, turning the faith into a branch of the bureaucracy. A much more profound reason, however, is that religion was never detached from the nation, becoming instead an unspoken definition of it. It was this that allowed Kemalism to become more than just a cult of the elites, leaving a durable imprint on the masses themselves. Secularism failed to take at village level: nationalism sank deeper popular roots. It is possible – such is the argument of Carter Findley in his Turks in World History – that in doing so it drew on a long Turkish cultural tradition, born in Central Asia and predating conversion to Islam, that figured a sacralisation of the state, which has vested its modern signifier, devlet, with an aura of unusual potency. However that may be, the ambiguity of Kemalism was to construct an ideological code in two registers. One was secular and appealed to the elite. The other was crypto-religious and accessible to the masses. Common to both was the integrity of the nation, as supreme political value.

Here is the full LRB essay, via Alex Xenopoulos.  The comments after the essay are worth reading too.

That is the new James C. Scott book, and so far it is the most interesting non-fiction read of the year (I am about halfway through).  You can think of it as an extended essay on which technologies actually gave rise to economies of scale, expressed through governance but not only.  Ultimately the focus settles on Mesopotamia, but the discussion is wide-ranging and the lessons are applicable to much of human history.  Here is an opening summary bit:

I propose that cereal grains have unique characteristics such that they would be, virtually everywhere, the major tax commodity essential to early state building.  I believe that we may have grossly underestimated the importance of the (infectious) diseases of crowding in the demographic fragility of the early state.  Unlike many historians, I wonder whether frequent abandonment of early state centers might often have been a boon to the health and safety of their populations rather than a “dark age” signaling the collapse of a civilization.  And finally, I ask whether those populations that remained outside state centers for millennia after the first states were established may not have remained there (or fled there) because they found conditions better.

Here is one good passage:

It is surely striking that virtually all classical states were based on grain, including millets.  History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (“Banana Republics” don’t qualify!)  My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing.  On suitable soil wheat provides the agro-ecology for dense concentrations of human subjects.

In contrast the tuber cassava (aka manioc, yucca) grows below ground, requires little care, is easy to conceal, ripens in a year, and, most important, can safely be left in the ground and remain edible for two more years.  If the state wants your cassava, it will have to come and dip up the tubers one by one, and then it has a cartload of little value and great weight if transported.

The discussion of how the technology of fire is the ultimate root of economies of scale is alone worth the price of the book.  Scott analogizes complacency/peace to the domestication of non-human animals, including the phenomenon of less violent emotional reactions and greater conformity.

Urgently recommended, and fun to read as well.

Here are various articles on the work of James C. Scott.  Here is a good NYT profile of Scott and also his farming work.